Wet-dry election: Dallas’ drinking problem

What does it take to get a drink in this neighborhood?What does it take to get a drink around here? Navigating through 100 years of complicated laws is the current answer. After November, however, that may change.

Story by Jeff Siegel, Keri Mitchell & Rachel Stone

It’s almost impossible to overstate how important next month’s wet-dry election is in Dallas’ social and cultural history. It’s not only the biggest wet-dry election in U.S. history since the end of Prohibition, but it’s also a landmark moment in Dallas. Since before Prohibition — for almost 100 years — most of Dallas has been dry in one form or another. It has been as much a part of Dallas as 100-degree days and the Cowboys.

In this, our wet-dry boundaries affected everyone. In dry areas, of course, residents have had to drive across town to buy a bottle of wine or a six-pack and couldn’t even order a drink in a restaurant until 1971. Even today, the private club limitations in dry areas that went into affect in 1971 make it more difficult to order liquor in Oak Cliff and North Dallas than in Lakewood. And even residents in wet areas feel the difference. If you live in a wet part of town that borders a dry area, you witness the Friday night flight to the liquor stores that guard the border.

All of this could change next month. If voters approve the two issues on the ballot, every restaurant in the city, regardless of wet-dry status, will be able to sell beer, wine and spirits without the private club paperwork, and retailers with the appropriate state licenses will be able to sell beer and wine.

In this month’s magazine, we look at the history of Dallas’ wet-dry status, our unique (and often frustrating) liquor laws, the role religion has played in keeping Dallas dry, and what it will mean to our neighborhood if voters approve both issues.

Will a “wet” Dallas mean that a beer barn can set up shop on my corner?

Cars wind into a drive-through convenience store on a Friday night, giving their orders to gloomy girls generally wearing bikini tops, short shorts and too much makeup.

The beer barn girls retrieve six packs of beer, bottles of liquor, cigarettes and whatever else people order from their driver-side windows.

These beer barns line West Jefferson just outside Oak Cliff in the city of Cockrell Hill, where voters elected to allow liquor, beer and wine sales in 2007, when the city was on the brink of bankruptcy.

“We don’t want that in Oak Cliff,” says Renata Chavez, who lives in the Tivoli Place neighborhood and worries that such stores could encroach on her neighborhood, bringing with them vagrants, prostitution and a general uptick in crime.

But many believe allowing the sale of beer and wine in grocery and convenience stores in Oak Cliff could help the neighborhood attract business without allowing the seedy, drive-through-beer-stores kind.

“People don’t want that in their backyard, and I don’t blame them,” says Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce president Bob Stimson.

Zoning regulations in Oak Cliff would require special use permits from the City Plan Commission before a drive-through convenience store could open, he says, and he believes that Oak Cliff residents are vigilant enough to keep them away.

Every day that Oak Cliff is dry, Stimson says, the area is losing revenues to nearby cities that are wet, such as Duncanville.

“It’s not like people in Oak Cliff are not drinking already,” Stimson says.


Don’t most Oak Cliff restaurants already sell beer, wine and cocktails?

Allowing retail beer-and-wine sales is one option voters have in the November election. They also have the option to allow the sale of beer and wine in restaurants in dry areas such as Oak Cliff.

Those sales effectively already are legal through the club membership loophole, but operating as a club requires extra paperwork and expense.

Proponents of the wet initiative say club memberships effectively are a $10,000-$20,000 annual tax on business owners whose real estate happens to fall in dry areas.

Under state law, liquor distributors such as Ben E. Keith are prohibited from delivering to restaurants in dry areas. So restaurants serving alcohol under the club membership model must purchase and pick up their alcohol from Class B retail warehouses, which charge about 11 percent more than wholesale distributors, says Matt Spillers, owner of Eno’s restaurant in Bishop Arts. That adds labor and transportation costs, including vehicles, insurance and fuel. Plus, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission charges extra fees to restaurants operating as private clubs, and private clubs must keep separate books for food and alcohol sales.

Only so much of that added cost can be passed onto consumers. So restaurant owners in dry areas are less likely to profit from alcohol sales than their competitors in wet areas a few miles away.

“I would almost say I would never open another restaurant in a dry area,” says Spillers, a vocal proponent of the change (although this fall he is opening a new Bishop Arts District restaurant, Oddfellows, with nine investors).

Oak Cliff restaurateurs already are taking risks by investing in our neighborhood, says Amy Cowan, a political consultant and neighborhood activist, who is also one of the Oddfellows investors.

Oak Cliff residents alone can’t sustain the neighborhood’s better restaurants, so to be successful, Oak Cliff restaurants must draw business from across the river. That can be a challenge, and adding the complication and expense of club membership creates an unfair disadvantage for business owners already “pioneering” Oak Cliff, Cowan says.

“It really limits who can afford to do business in Oak Cliff,” she says.


Is being dry the only factor keeping grocery stores from expanding into Oak Cliff?

Yes and no, says neighborhood resident Monte Anderson of Options Real Estate, which focuses on land in Oak Cliff and southern Dallas.

“Most of those people want to sell beer and wine, and that’s been an obstacle on the grocery store front,” Anderson says. It’s “probably not the only thing, no, but it’s a big thing for companies like Whole Foods. What I hear from them is they are not coming without it.”

The only current location in Oak Cliff being considered by a grocery store is the mixed-use Sylvan | Thirty project along Sylvan between I-30 and Fort Worth Avenue. That site is adjacent to Kessler Park and also receives traffic “bleeding in from downtown and all of the traffic going to Grand Prairie and Arlington,” Anderson says.

Brent Jackson, the project’s developer, says a grocer has signed a letter of intent with Sylvan | Thirty, and he hopes to make an announcement sometime before the end of the year. As of press time, Jackson would only say that he looked for a grocer that “can really cater to all walks of life and to a more diverse consumer base … If you have a grocer that is narrowly focused in its consumer base, then they won’t succeed on our site, and quite frankly, that market is fairly saturated over here.”

The grocer that intends to be part of Sylvan | Thirty will be “organic, mindful and interested in a diverse consumer base, and an extremely creative grocer,” says Jackson, whose site plan carves out 8,000 square feet for a grocery store (traditional stores are around 40,000 square feet). However, he says, “it’s not a done deal by any stretch of the imagination,” and the wet-dry election could make an impact.

Jackson wouldn’t say whether the grocer’s final decision hinges on that plot of real estate becoming wet, but he did say that, in general, “whether or not a grocer would make a decision to come to Oak Cliff, and I’m speculating here, I would imagine it’s going to have some bearing on their decision. Not all grocers require beer and wine sales, but you always want to have as wide of a net as possible to ensure you get the right candidate for the area.

“For our project specifically, it is extremely important to have beer and wine sales within the project; whether or not housed within the grocer is yet to be determined.”

When did Oak Cliff become dry?

Oak Cliff was a rocking place in the early 1950s. How about the Red Devil on West Davis, or Pappy’s Showland on Fort Worth Avenue?

“There were a lot of places to go get a beer back then,” says Bill Strouse, a retired Air Force airman who grew up in Oak Cliff.

In fact, Oak Cliff had a bit of a reputation before a 1956 election turned it dry. More than 500 neighborhood locations had licenses to serve beer, mostly along Beckley, Davis, Singleton and Fort Worth. News accounts before the election said most of the licenses belonged to drive-in markets and cafés, but bars and grocery stores sold beer as well.

A group called the Oak Cliff Civic Loyalty League petitioned for the election, and its president, Buel R. Crouch, pastor of Grace Temple Baptist Church, said it had 12,000 members representing 150 churches.

“The election was pretty passionate on the church side,” Strouse says. “I don’t think it was about crime. I think their objection was mostly moral.”

Turnout, however, wasn’t especially heavy. The drys won with 53 percent of the vote, but only 33,000 people voted — about 10,000 less than had voted in the governor’s race a month earlier. Still, there was some speculation that their victory would give the drys enough momentum to win a wet-dry election in what was then Justice Precinct 1, which included most of the city north of the Trinity and was the last wet part of Dallas County.

That momentum never materialized, and no election was ever held. However, the drys did win wet-dry elections in Oak Cliff in 1957 and 1960, both instigated by wets, who were defeated by larger margins than in 1956.

How long has liquor been a political debate?

Wet-dry has always been controversial in Texas. In 1887, a leading anti-Prohibitionist, R.Q. Mills, accused the media of bias in its reporting of the wet side during the fight over adding a Prohibition amendment to the state constitution: “The Prohibitionists had a monopoly with our reporting,” and he said the media who had criticized his position were guilty of fraud.

And in 1920, prominent Dallas physician Dr. Curtice Rosser exchanged letters with his friend William Jennings Bryan, the thrice-failed Democratic presidential candidate, about the most important issues in the upcoming presidential election. They agreed it would be war profiteering, the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles (that ended World War I) and Prohibition.

Did Dallasites make moonshine?

Stills and corn liquor are not just hillbilly doings. In 1936, reported a Dallas newspaper, police raided a still in the “North Dallas Negro district” near what is today Cole and Lemmon. They seized 950 gallons of mash, but the still’s operators escaped — even though the newspaper reported that the police had staked out the house for most of the night.

What’s all this about “Class B retailers”?

Texas’ Class B system dates to 1971, as a companion to a law allowing restaurants and bars to sell liquor by the drink. Before that, no restaurant in Texas was allowed to sell liquor — even in wet areas (although they could sell beer and wine). Customers brought their booze with them from home, and the restaurant sold them setups — mixers, juices and the like.

The reason for the law? Retailers who thought liquor by the drink would cost them sales successfully lobbied state legislators, who gave them a monopoly on selling liquor to restaurants, bars and private clubs (restaurants that serve liquor in the state’s dry areas). Retailers said they would lose business because consumers would stop buying liquor at their stores to bring to restaurants. So the legislature agreed to give them the monopoly to make up for the lost sales.

Retailers who sell liquor to restaurants and private clubs are called Class B retailers, after the name of the license they obtain. They include some of the state’s best-known retailers, including Sigel’s and Goody Goody in the Dallas area. Texas is one of three states — Kansas and South Carolina are the others — with four tiers of distribution: manufacturer, distributor, retailer and restaurant. The other 47 just have three — manufacturer, distributor and restaurant.

According to this 1971 state law, every restaurant in Texas, whether it’s in a wet or dry area, must purchase liquor from a Class B retailer. The November election would not change this law; it would simply eliminate private clubs in Dallas and make every restaurant a restaurant, in terms of how it can purchase and sell alcohol.

The difference between private clubs and restaurants is that liquor can be delivered to restaurants in wet areas, whereas private club restaurants in dry areas must travel to a Class B retailer’s warehouse to pick up liquor — Sigel’s is near Harry Hines and Preston, and Goody Goody’s is in Addison, for example. Private clubs must also buy their beer and wine, but not liquor, from Class B retailers, while restaurants in wet areas can buy beer and wine directly from the distributors. Class B retailers also buy their beer and wine from distributors, which translates to a markup when the retailers sell it to private clubs.

What does this mean for consumers? Typically, but not always, they’ll pay more for alcohol in a private club. The extra tier adds cost to the product, and restaurants usually pass that onto their customers.

How do Texans outside of Dallas like their liquor?

Alcohol has never been especially popular with Texans. When Prohibition began in 1919, 199 of the 254 counties were dry; 43 were practically dry, including Dallas County. Even today, according to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, 29 of the 254 counties are still dry, and only 43 are completely wet.

It could be worse … what if the state owned our liquor stores?

In 18 states (and one county) in the U.S., the state owns the liquor stores. These are called control states, and though there are differences in how each state defines control (some states allow private retailers to sell wine or beer, for example), the result is that what is for sale is controlled by the state.

This is a legacy of Prohibition; the political compromise that made repeal possible allowed each state to pass its own liquor laws.

Pennsylvania has taken control one step further. Currently, grocery stores in Pennsylvania can’t sell wine. Instead, the state liquor authorities have installed wine vending machines, from which the customer can buy wine, similar to buying a soft drink or a candy bar from a vending machine. Similar, but with a couple of exceptions.

The consumer puts his or her driver’s license into the machine, where age information on the bar code is processed. The photo on the driver’s license is matched with a video image of the buyer at the kiosk, and a state liquor board employee monitors each transaction to confirm that the video of the buyer matches the driver’s license.


How is it that Dallas County is dry yet parts of Dallas are wet?

The basis for Texas’ wet-dry laws is local option, which does what it says: Local voters can decide whether to sell alcohol in their locality. It’s one of the cornerstones of the Texas liquor system, says Lou Bright, former general counsel for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

“The priority is that local voters always have the final say, and can’t be forced to change their local preference by someone from outside their locality,” Bright says. “This doesn’t mean that it’s not confusing or can’t be ambiguous, but that’s always the principle.”

How confusing? Consider what happened in 2006, when a group of North Dallas and Lake Highlands residents tried to schedule a wet-dry election for their respective sections of the city. The Texas Supreme Court ruled that the wet-dry election couldn’t be held because the election was designated for the current Justice of the Peace precinct boundaries, when it should have been designated for the boundaries established in 1877, when the area went dry.

State law defines localities three ways and uses the principle that the larger locality, such as a city, can’t force a smaller locality, such as a JP precinct, to change its behavior:

• Justice of the peace precinct. JP precincts are not voting precincts, but legal and administrative divisions within a county. One JP precinct can be dry, while the one next to it in the same city or county can be wet. Interestingly, Dallas’ wet-dry boundaries don’t follow the current JP lines, but older, less-well-defined JP boundaries.

• City. This isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. A JP precinct that’s dry can’t be turned wet in a citywide election unless all of the precinct is within the city. This was one of the issues in the run-up to the November election, when there was some doubt as to whether the JP precinct in Oak Cliff that went dry in 1956 was contained within the city of Dallas. Turns out it was.

• County. Again, not as simple as it sounds, and for many of the same reasons. When Lubbock voted wet in 2009, the drys claimed that part of the county was dry from previous elections, and that a city-wide election couldn’t affect those areas — which included part of Lubbock. Their argument failed in court.

Is most of Dallas still dry for religious reasons?

Religious groups have traditionally taken the lead in fighting wet-dry elections in Texas, and they played a key role 50 years ago when Oak Cliff went dry. But there doesn’t seem to be much organized religious opposition to November’s two wet-dry ballot issues.

Does this mean that neighborhood churches don’t care about the issue any more? Or that Dallas is less religious than it used to be?

No on both counts, several religious leaders say. It’s not so much that alcohol isn’t important; rather, it’s that other issues have become more important, and abstinence isn’t the issue it once was. In addition, Dallas has changed significantly from the smaller, predominantly mainstream Protestant city of the 1960s and 1970s to a million-plus population urban center that includes more Catholics, Jews and non-denominational Protestants — all of whom are less concerned about alcohol.

“We’re just getting to this point later than other cities,” says George Mason, pastor at the moderate Wilshire Baptist Church. “The city is more diverse, and we have more people who have different attitudes about this subject.”

Also, says Rev. Tim McLemore of SMU, alcohol is no longer the good vs. evil issue that it has traditionally been among the mainline Protestant groups that have been in the forefront of the U.S. temperance movement. Mason says this is even true for some conservative Baptists.

“We have knowledge about the benefits of the limited use of alcohol that we didn’t have 100 years ago,” says McLemore, who notes that the United Methodists have changed their views to allow “judicious use” of alcohol. “So we’re less inclined to take a black and white view.”

Finally, churches have less influence over their members than they did two and three decades ago. Times were, Mason says, if the church said not to drink, believers didn’t drink. These days, that veto power is largely gone.


What am I actually voting on?

Dallas voters will decide two issues in November’s wet-dry election:

1. Whether to eliminate the private club regulation for restaurants that sell alcohol in dry areas. The private club rule, in place since 1971, requires restaurants to admit customers into the restaurant’s club so they can buy alcohol. It also requires the restaurant to keep a paper trail of club members.
2. Whether to allow the sale of beer and wine, but not spirits, at retailers throughout the entire city. Currently, only one-third of Dallas — roughly White Rock Lake to Irving and downtown to Walnut Hill — is wet for retail sales.

Neither issue is dependent on the other. Voters can elect to allow retail sales but keep the private club restrictions, or vice versa.

If the Texas Supreme Court decides there are enough signatures to hold the referendum, the election will be held Nov. 2.

Registration to be eligible to vote in the election ends Oct. 4. Early voting runs Oct. 18-29.

For more information: dalcoelections.org


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